2017 AFC North division preview

2017 AFC North division preview

The NFL regular season is fast approaching. In the blink of an eye, Sep. 7 will arrive and the Chiefs and Patriots will be kicking off the 2017-2018 NFL season. In the meantime, Hagan’s Haus will be bringing you the divisional previews and predictions of how teams will finish in their respective divisions. Without further ado, here is the 2017 AFC North division preview.

4: Cleveland Browns

2017 AFC North division preview

(Photo Credit: http://www.clevelandbrowns.com)

Last season: 1-15

Strength of schedule: 21

The Cleveland Browns had an atrocious 2016 NFL season but that has become the norm in Cleveland. In the last 10 seasons, the Browns have had more the seven wins only twice. It has been even longer since the Browns have made the playoffs which last occurred in 2002. The struggle has been real but the Browns seem to be moving in the right direction finally.

It isn’t hard to improve on a 1-15 season and the truth is the Browns have nowhere to go but up. Improvement started with the draft and Cleveland did a tremendous job in the draft this year. The selections of Myles Garrett, David Njoku, Jabrill Peppers, DeShone Kizer, Caleb Brantley and Larry Ogunjobi show just how much the Browns are moving in the right direction. All these players will be key pieces for the Browns moving forward.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Browns will be much better than last years 31st ranking. Danny Shelton and Desmond Bryant will do a solid job plugging the middle allowing Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey to make a lot of tackles. In the secondary, Joe Haden is the veteran star who will attempt to lead this secondary’s improvement in defending the pass which gave up 249.8 passing yards per game.

Offensively, the Browns will need to be committed to running the football. Their upgrades along the offensive line will create a solid foundation for improving an offense that only managed to score 16.5 points per game. The quarterback situation is still unfolding but having a solid offensive line will allow them to run the ball well with Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr. This will make life easier for whoever ends up under center over the course of the season.

No matter who starts, or eventually plays, at quarterback they will have really good receivers to connect with. Corey Coleman and Kenny Britt are capable of having big years and both could find their way to 1,000 yards. Duke Johnson Jr. will also see some time at wideout and with his speed could turn any touch into a house call.

Although the Browns seem to be heading in the right direction, they won’t see a ton of wins this season. Cleveland plays in a tough division and just doesn’t have enough talent to win it. The Browns will be more competitive but are a year or two away from really competing for the division crown.

Prediction: 4-12 (2-4), miss the playoffs

losses: Pit, @Bal, @Ind, @Hou, Ten, Min, @Det, @Cin, @LAC, GB, @Pit, @Chi

3: Baltimore Ravens

2017 AFC North division preview

(Photo Credit: https://www.si.com)

Last season: 8-8

Strength of schedule: 24

Baltimore has struggled since winning Super Bowl XLVII, missing the playoffs three of the last four seasons. The defense hasn’t been as elite and the offense doesn’t seem to have a true identity. The Ravens are in for another tough season and John Harbaugh may be on the hot seat by the end of this season.

As previously mentioned, the Ravens do not have a true identity. Despite having Marshal Yanda on the offensive line, the unit as a whole is a weak spot and Pro Football Focus ranks the unit 23rd out of 32 teams. The offensive line is going to face some tough defenses, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh twice, Jacksonville, Minnesota, and Tennessee are teams capable of dominating the Ravens front.

With a below average offensive line, the running game is going to struggle as it did last season averaging just 91.4 yards per game. There is also a three man committee at running back between Lorenzo Taliaferro, Terrance West and Danny Woodhead. Each has their own specialty, but with three running backs splitting time, none will be able to get into a good enough rhythm to lead the running game to succeed.

Because of this, the running game will not open up the passing game which is a must for Joe Flacco to have success. Aside from an amazing playoff run in 2013, Flacco is rather average. His QBR shows just how average he is at 58.4 last season. In Flacco’s nine year career he has averaged 3,626 yards, 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions per season. These numbers scream average. Flacco is also 11-19 in his last 30 starts. His career seems to be trending down and the Ravens are going to hurt this season because of it.

The receiving group has a lot of experience and speed. Jeremy Maclin and Mike Wallace will cause nightmares for defensive backs but can the offensive line hold up enough for Flacco to get them the ball, that is the question. Breshad Perriman is another speedster that can become a dangerous deep threat.

Defensive has been the strength of this franchise for a long time. Last season was no different as the Ravens ranked ninth in points allowed. Baltimore gave up the seventh fewest yards during the season which was due to their outstanding rush defense. Teams only ran for 89.4 yards per game against the Ravens. The defense will remain good but not good enough to carry a team with a bad offense to the playoffs.

The Ravens really struggled on the road last season going 2-6 and it is likely that the road woes continue. Pair this with an offense that will struggle to score and you get a team that ends up with only a handful of wins.

Prediction: 6-10 (3-3), miss the playoffs

losses: @Cin, @Jax, @Oak, @Min, Mia, @Ten, @GB, Det, @Pit, @Cle

2: Cincinnati Bengals

2017 AFC North division preview

(Photo Credit: George Gojkovich/Getty Images)

Last season: 6-9-1

Strength of schedule: 29

After making the playoffs for five straight seasons the Bengals took a step back and only won six games last year. Marvin Lewis is entering his 15th season as the head coach and has gone 0-7 in the playoffs. If he does not win a playoff game this season he will be fired. 15 years is plenty of time to prove you can win a playoff game and if the Bengals don’t do so there needs to be a new voice in the locker room.

The Bengals offense was nothing spectacular last season. Cincinnati ranked 24th in scoring at just 20.3 points per game. The Bengals offense will need to score more points this season. Rushing the ball seems to be easy for the Bengals as they averaged 110.6 rushing yards per game. Joe Mixon will improve the running game even more as long as the replacements along the offensive line create running lanes.

The passing attack will also be better this season. A.J. Green will still be a beast on the outside but a healthy Tyler Eifert will open up the middle of the field. Speedy receiver John Ross will complement these two players and create mismatches for opposing defenses. Andy Dalton just needs to get the ball out of his hands and into these playmakers hands as quickly as possible to make up for the below average offensive line.

Losing offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler is going to be huge blows to this offense. Cincinnati is hoping they can soften this blow by reacquiring Andre Smith. If the offensive line can replace these losses and hold up, then the Bengals will easily have a top 15 offense in the NFL.

Similar to the Ravens, the strength of the Bengals is on the defensive side of the ball. Cincinnati gave up the seventh fewest points last season at just 19.7 per game. The front four is led by studs Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson. Vontaze Burfict returns at linebacker and the Bengals upgraded their middle linebacker from Rey Maualuga to Kevin Minter. The secondary is also not to be messed with as the Bengals return Adam “Pacman” Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick and George Iloka.

The success of this season depends on the offense. Defensively, there is little to no concern. If the offensive line can create success then the Bengals will be in the hunt for the playoffs.

Prediction: 8-8 (3-3), wildcard candidate

losses: Hou, @GB, @Cle, @Pit, @Ten, @Den, @Min, @Bal

1: Pittsburgh Steelers

2017 AFC North division preview

(Photo Credit: https://www.pinterest.com)

Last season: 11-5

Strength of schedule: 27

How did a team that finished 11-5 and made it to the AFC Championship, get such an easy schedule? Pittsburgh has the fifth easiest schedule in the NFL and returns a plethora of talent. The Steelers have plenty of experience on their side and should be one of the best teams in the NFL and a Super Bowl contender.

The Steelers quietly had a very good defense but the offense gets all the recognition. Pittsburgh did rank 10th in points allowed and total yards. The high total yards ranking was because of their rush defense which only gave up 93.2 rush yards per game, ranking eighth.

The biggest area the Steelers need to show improvement in is in third down defense. Pittsburgh could not get off the field and spent an average of 62 plays per game on the field. Opposing offenses converted 41.1 percent of their third downs. The Steelers added rookie T.J. Watt in the draft to get some more pressure thus helping them get off the field more on.

Supringingly Pittsburgh is all about the offense though. The Steelers have a three headed monster on offense that led them to having one of the leagues best offenses. The oldest of the three, Ben Roethlisberger, had another great year. Big Ben threw for 3,819 yards, 29 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Even at his age, he will still throw for close to 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns as long as he remains healthy.

Le’Veon Bell is who this offense is built around so this hold out is alarming. As long as Bell can play the entire season, the Steelers will have an unstoppable offense. Bell is the first player to ever average 100 yards rushing and 50 yards receiving for a season. He is a key piece to the Steelers success.

The remaining star, Antonio Brown,  contributed 106 receptions, 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns to the high powered offense. Brown consistently dominates the league and with him passing success is easy to come by. These three superstars are the reason the Steelers are going to have another year in which they score a ton of points.

The Steelers have an easy schedule, tough defense and explosive offense. Pittsburgh will win the division and contend for the Super Bowl

Prediction: 12-4 (4-2), division champion

losses: @Bal, @KC, NE, @Hou

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Featured image courtesy of https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_uY9XhulFyM

John Fox

NFL preseason coaching heat check

NFL coaches on the hot seat is a topic that fans and media alike never seem to stop talking about. NFL preseason is a good time to take an inventory of coaches that could be in trouble if the upcoming season goes poorly.

The NFL never stops surprising us. Thus, the coaches mentioned here are by no means the only ones that might be relocating in 2018. These are just the situations that jump off the page immediately.

Dead men walking

John Fox

John Fox is a hugely underrated coach who has engineered massive turnarounds and deep playoffs runs everywhere he has been. Everywhere except Chicago, that is, as he is just 9-23 in two seasons with the Bears. These days, coaches rarely get more than three seasons to be awful in the same spot.

Unfortunately for Fox, the front office has given him his worst Bears roster yet. The already murky quarterback situation was only made messier by the surprise drafting of rookie Mitchell Trubisky with the second overall pick. Outside of running back Jordan Howard, there just is not much talent on this roster.

There are a lot of projects. Fox does not have time for projects. Despite going 3-13 last year, Chicago did not make much of an impact in free agency and only ended up with five draft picks.

NFL preseason coaching heat check

Photo: nydailynews

It is not entirely his fault, but this is not the recipe for the kind of turnaround Fox needs to keep his job. Right or wrong, the head coach is always the first to go.

Todd Bowles

Minus the established track record, Fox and Todd Bowles are in very similar spots. Bowles is 15-17 in two seasons with the Jets.

With a quarterback race that features Bryce Petty, Josh McCown and Christian Hackenberg and a receiving group in which no one has caught 60 career passes, a winless season is very realistic for the Jets. No coach survives that. Bowles will likely land on his feet as defensive coordinator somewhere in 2018.

Not likely, but not impossible

Mike Zimmer

Mike Zimmer is one of the most respected coaches in the game. He had the back story of assistant coach who paid his dues in the NFL for almost two decades before getting a shot to be a head coach.

However, the reality is that Zimmer is slowly becoming Rex Ryan without the brash and bold guarantees. The defense has always been elite during Zimmer’s time in Minnesota. It even carried them to a 6-0 start last year.

Much like Rex Ryan’s teams though, the offensive side of the ball just is not very good. They have never ranked inside the top 20 in total offense under Zimmer. Even in 2015 when Zimmer’s Vikings reached the playoffs, they were 31st in passing offense.

Rex Ryan has a 61-66 record with four playoff wins as an NFL head coach. He’s now a commentator for ESPN. Zimmer is 26-22 without a playoff win. If Zimmer does not figure out the offensive side of the ball this year, his record will creep closer to .500 and he could join Ryan at ESPN.

Adam Gase

Two weeks ago, Gase would not have been in any article like this. He did an outstanding job in leading the Dolphins to the playoffs last year in his first season.

NFL preseason coaching heat check

Photo: espn.com

However, bringing his favorite pupil Jay Cutler out of retirement to save the day after the injury to starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill is pretty bold. Yes, Cutler had his best statistical season when Gase was his offensive coordinator with the Bears in 2015, but that team still managed only six wins. Last year, Cutler only started five games due to injury and poor performance.

Cutler’s lack of passion for the game of football has always been painfully apparent. Despite a wealth of natural talent, he is only led a team the playoffs once and has losing record as a starter.

He will no doubt fill the stat sheet with touchdowns and interceptions in Miami. Even so, there is nothing to suggest that he will fare any better than original backup quarterback Matt Moore in terms of winning games.

Gaze really stuck his neck out for Cutler. It is only a one-year deal. Even so, if the experiment blows up in his face and muddies the future of the quarterback position in Miami, ownership having a quick hook would not be all that surprising.

Unique Situations:

In addition to the four coaches mentioned above, 2017 is also a big year for several coaches that have been with their current teams for many years. Marvin Lewis, Sean Payton, John Harbaugh, Bruce Arians and Chuck Pagano have all experienced significant success in their current coaching stops. However, they all missed the playoffs last year.

Some of them are on a streak of unsuccessful seasons. They have all done great things for their respective franchises over the years and have immense respect of ownership. Thus, I cannot see any of them getting fired. If the upcoming season goes poorly though, a mutual parting of ways is certainly possible.

 

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Joe Flacco

NFL training camp injuries: The walking wounded

With last night’s Hall of Fame game, NFL football is officially back in our lives. While that is a beautiful thing, the injury bug is running wild through NFL training camps as it does every year. It is impossible to cover them all, but here is a summary of some early NFL training camp injuries.

Quarterbacks

While Shane Ray and a few other notable defenders will miss some time, most of the early injuries have been on the offensive side of the ball. The league’s most important position is no exception.

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has a herniated disc in his back. That is really all anyone knows for sure. Reports have Flacco missing anywhere from a single week to six weeks.  The front office in Baltimore has said a lot while doing very little in regards to controversial former 49ers signal caller Colin Kaepernick.

Miami Dolphins

Photo: cbssports.com

The training camp reports on current backup Ryan Mallett have been far from glowing. Combine that with the fact the Kaepernick chatter has not exactly been squashed, and the whole situation becomes worth monitoring.

Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill suffered a non-contact injury to the same knee that was hurt at the end of last year. The results of his MRI showed no structural damage in the knee, however there’s no timetable for his return. Any sort of long term injury to Tannehill would be very difficult to overcome and a possible momentum killer for a franchise that surprised many by making the playoffs last year.

As far as backup quarterbacks go, Matt Moore is one of the best around. Even so, he is the backup for a reason.

Andrew Luck and Cam Newton are also not doing much early in training camp due to lingering effects from offseason surgeries.

Offensive lines

You cannot put offensive lineman on your fantasy football team. Thus, many people do not pay much attention to them. However, the offensive line is a key element to any great football team.

Quarterback is just the beginning of the issues in Baltimore. The group that will protect whoever is throwing the ball for the Ravens this year is already shuffling. Marshal Yanda has been one of the best offensive lineman in the game for the last handful of years, but he is also not fully healthy from offseason surgery.

Forrest Lamp

Photo: San Diego Union Tribune

Additionally, center/guard John Urschel suddenly retired a few days ago to further pursue his academic career. Also, rookie guard Nico Siragusa is already out for the year with a knee injury. John Harbaugh’s team may very well have to mix and match on the offensive line well into the regular season. That never turns out well.

Keeping Philip Rivers upright and away from the freakishly talented pass rushers of the AFC West has been a challenge for the Chargers in recent years. Rookie guard Forrest Lamp was supposed to help change that. However, the second-round pick is out for the year with a torn ACL.

The Ravens and Chargers already faced uphill battles in highly competitive divisions this year. Offensive line issues at the very beginning of training camp are a nightmare for any coaching staff to deal with.

Wide Receivers

The injuries are piling up elsewhere. Speedy Texans wideout Will Fuller is sidelined indefinitely with a broken collarbone. Chargers first-round pick Mike Williams may also miss extended time. The former favorite target of Deshaun Watson is dealing with a bad back.

The only thing coaches and fans should really hope for this time of year is for every player that goes down to get back up. We all know that it does not always happen that way. Training camp is our first yearly reminder of what a war of attrition the NFL can be.

 

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Baltimore Ravens 2017 NFL Draft Profile

The Baltimore Ravens are upon us on day 15 of Draftmas.

Summary

The Baltimore Ravens were plagued by injuries for a second straight season, resulting in an 8-8 record. The most disappointing part about this finish was that they were just one win away from a playoff berth, if they could have only beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers on Christmas. In that game, the Ravens had a lead going into the 4th quarter, but their defense completely collapsed. That one quarter helps show how a team once known for its unstoppable defense, needs to focus a lot of attention on upgrading that side of the ball this offseason.

It has been a somewhat quiet offseason for the Ravens. The team made some changes at the position coach level, but all three coordinators are returning for another season as well as head coach John Harbaugh. Wide receiver Steve Smith also announced his retirement and the team will need to find a replacement.The best move the Ravens have made this offseason was resigning Brandon Williams to a long term deal. Williams, 26, is one of the best nose tackles in the NFL and a great run-stuffer in the 3-4 defense. The Ravens also spent the offseason cutting underperforming veterans including outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil and cornerback Ladarius Webb.

The signing of safety Tony Jefferson from the Arizona Cardinals was also a great move and he will be a definite upgrade over the aging Webb. The Timmy Jernigan trade does not make sense because he is a young defensive end in a position of need for the Ravens who had shown flashes in the past. Jernigan at age 24 is simply too young to justify the Ravens trading him away to move up 25 spots in the third round, Jernigan’s upside is too great. The Ravens did not do much to address their needs in free agency and hope the draft will help fill them.

 

Ravens Picks and Needs

The Ravens have seven picks in this years draft, including two in the third round. This gives the Ravens enough picks to address their needs as well as build depth on a team that lacks it. Here are the picks:

First Round: 16th Overall

Second Round: 47th Overall

Third Round: 74th –from Eagles for Timmy Jernigan and 99th overall pick

Third Round: 78th Overall

Fourth Round: 122nd Overall

Fifth Round: 159th Overall

Sixth Round: 186th Overall- from 49ers for C Jeremy Zutter and 198th overall pick

The Ravens have some glaring needs on both sides of the ball. The defense has holes at almost every position besides safety and nose tackle. The team has a decent offense, but the offensive line is their weakest unit and needs to be upgraded in order to keep Joe Flacco healthy. The team also needs to find a replacement for Steve Smith. Here are the Ravens’ needs:

 

Offense:

Wide Receiver

Center

Offensive Guard

Left Tackle

Right Tackle

 

Defense:

Defensive End

Rush Linebacker

Cornerback

Inside Linebacker

 

Ravens Targets:

Here I will project the Ravens picks in the first three rounds assuming there are no trades.

First Round:

16th Pick: Cam Robinson OT, Alabama

The Ravens are in desperate need at offensive line this offseason with the departure of Ricky Wagner to the Giants. This pick has decent value at this point of the first round and Robinson is the only tackle graded as a first rounder. Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome has always liked picking Alabama players and it has been reported the Ravens are high on Robinson. Wide receiver John Ross out of Washington could also go here as a successor to Steve Smith.

Second Round:

47th Pick: Curtis Samuel WR, Ohio State

The Ravens get their replacement for Steve Smith here. Samuel has a very similar skill set to Steve Smith and should be used as a vertical threat in the pros. I could also see the Ravens addressing the rush linebacker spot here, but this is a deep class for edge rushers.

Third Round:

74th Pick: Carl Lawson, DE/OLB, Auburn

Lawson played defensive end in college, but a lot of people think he will fit in better as a 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL. He provides great value for the Ravens at this point. While he was productive when he was healthy in college, Lawson does have a little bit of an injury history, which is why he is a third round pick.

78th Pick: Kendall Beckwith, ILB, LSU

Baltimore needs another inside linebacker to pair with C.J. Mosley. Beckwith has experience playing in both a 3-4 and a 4-3 defense in college at LSU and did well in both schemes. Although he is a third round pick, he may be able to compete for a starting job and at the very least will provide good depth.

Conclusion:

The AFC North is likely going to be a two horse race between Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The Ravens can compete for a playoff spot with some good additions in this draft class, if they stay healthy.

 

Click here to view all of the Draftmas articles.

 

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“From Our Haus to Yours”

Possible Ray Rice NFL Return?

Mark Vergari/ USA Today Network

Mark Vergari/ USA Today Network

Ray Rice last touched the field in a regular season game on December 29, 2013 against the Cincinnati Bengals. We all know the reason why he that was his last game. He committed domestic violence against his current wife. Now he is the poster child of how to act after you commit an act as ugly as domestic violence. And has even said he would play for free and give his salary to domestic violence charity. But players in the NFL, like Greg Hardy, are still getting chances in the NFL. Yes, he is getting the chance because he is still a good player, when he isn’t slapping clipboards out of coach’s hands. Yes, I understand that in Ray Rice’s last regular season he only rushed for 660 yards on 214 carries and only had four touchdowns, but if you look at some teams in the league he could definitely be an upgrade. But NFL teams has basically shunned him out of the league, even though there are teams that could really use him.

Cleveland Browns:

If you look at the depth chart of the 2015 Cleveland Browns, and look at the running back position, you can definitely see where Rice could fit in. In the offseason they didn’t do too much to add to their depth at running back. With Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr. as their only real good options at the position, why not sign Rice to a one-year deal to prove himself? He most likely won’t be the starting running back, but he can definitely spell Crowell on first and second between the tackles. Johnson will most likely be in the game to stretch the field from the running back position. In Rice’s last year, he had 981 yards from rushing and receiving, which is more than Crowell’s 888 rushing and receiving total. And let’s add that Rice told USA Today Sports that his career-low 3.1 yards per carry and career-low rushing yards is mainly because of a Grade 3 muscle tear in his left quad. So the notion that Rice is not good enough for the league is crazy. As player who played with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, he can definitely help the youngsters on this team. He could be a good mentor for returning wide receiver Josh Gordon, who could really use a great influence in the locker room.

Courtesy of Getty Images

Courtesy of Getty Images

Baltimore Ravens:

I think a logical place could be the Baltimore Ravens. On Thursday’s practice fourth round pick Kenneth Dixon sprained his MCL and is listed as day-to-day. Once again if you look at the Ravens depth chart you could see some running backs on that roster that are not better than Rice. One of those running backs is Trent Richardson. In Richardson’s best year in 2012, he only rushed for 950 yards. In Rice’s worst year in 2013, he had 660 rushing yards. Richardson’s best year is only 290 yards more than Rice’s worst year. Baltimore does have Terrance West and Justin Forsett, but in this league you need two or three dependable backs. It would be a smooth transition on the field for Rice if the Ravens sign him. He knows Coach John Harbaugh, Joe Flacco and knows the city. Wherever Rice goes he said that he wants to have an imprint in the community, so why not start in Baltimore.

The NFL really needs to clean up their image and they can do it with Ray Rice, but whenever the NFL sees the Rice they see the video that made his family infamous. But that is not the man he is today. He has done everything you would want to see in someone who was involved in domestic violence. He has took ownership of the incident and he has helped citizens that have been affected by domestic violence. The NFL can stand up with Ray Rice and help people who have been affected by domestic violence, instead of shunning a man who has showed contrition for his actions and allowing a man who has been nothing been insensitive and ignorant to what he has done. If I was a NFL owner, I would be more worried about signing Greg Hardy instead of Ray Rice, because Rice has shown me he is a changed man and man who knows how precious the chance to play in the NFL is.